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Assessing patterns of annual change to permafrost bluffs along the North Slope coast of Alaska using high-resolution imagery and elevation models

March 29, 2019

Coastal permafrost bluffs at Barter Island, on the North Slope, Beaufort Sea Coast of Alaska are among the most rapidly eroding along Alaska’s coast, having retreated up to 132 m between 1955 and 2015. Here we quantify rates and patterns of change over a single year using very-high resolution orthophotomosaics and co-registered surface elevation models derived from a survey-grade form of structure-from-motion photogrammetry from a fixed-wing, manned aircraft. The resulting elevation models were validated with over 10,000 ground check points and found that 95% agreed to within 20 cm, before accounting for real differences in the ground surface due to seasonality, vegetation, and checkpoint acquisition errors. This data set provides the most detailed and accurate measurements of coastal change to date along the Alaskan coast and the method is scaleable to more extensive coastlines. Between July 2014 and July 2015, the bluffs retreated an average of 1.3 m, and a maximum of 8.1 m, with an associated net volume loss of 38,100 ± 300 m3 (1.3 m3/m). This average retreat over this single year was slightly less than the 60-year mean rate of change of -1.5±0.1 m/yr, suggesting the 2014-2015 year represented relatively typical to slightly below average conditions. Most of the bluff material (70%) was lost during the 3 summer months (July to Sept) of 2014 and the remaining 30% between the late-summer and following winter-spring. The pattern of change was predominantly landward retreat of the top of the bluffs, removal of the debris apron and subsequent niching at the base of the bluffs during mid to late summer (July to Sept) followed by erosion of the bluff face and deposition of debris at the base of the bluff through the remainder of the year (Sept to the following July). Drivers of the observed change are likely a combination of thermal erosion on the bluff face throughout the summer and episodic thermo-mechanical removal of material, niching, and undercutting of the base associated with high-water levels driven by low-pressure storms and westerly winds. These patterns and high rates of change are believed to be broadly representative of coastal permafrost bluffs found along many high-latitude coastlines worldwide.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2019
Title Assessing patterns of annual change to permafrost bluffs along the North Slope coast of Alaska using high-resolution imagery and elevation models
DOI 10.1016/j.geomorph.2019.03.029
Authors Ann E. Gibbs, Matt Nolan, Bruce M. Richmond, Alexander G. Snyder, Li Erikson
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Geomorphology
Series Number
Index ID 70203069
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center